Camp Pendleton, Calif. --
In December of 1941, Richard Harold Russell was 19. He was living in Michigan, going to college and enjoying his youth while being away from home. Russell can still remember the moment his life course would take a detour.
He recalls driving in his car when the news flash came on the radio, “Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese.” Russell, like many other Americans, took this as a call to action. Wanting to do his part and serve his country, he left college and joined the Marines.
“At that time, it was the thing to do,” stated Russell. “The Marine Corps was the most active group [at that time] so I got after it.”
Precisely one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Russell was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, determined on his path to be a Marine. Now a private first class and a rifleman, he joined the 1st Marine Division, at that time in Norfolk, Virginia.
“It was a very quick process. I was there, probably 30 days at the most,” recalls Russell. “On Easter day of ‘42, we got aboard ship and went through the Panama Canal. We went to Samoa and we – the 7th Marines – were the defense outfit for those islands.”
As time has passed, some memories have faded. But August 7, 1942 is a date that Russell remembers vividly. Thousands of miles away from home on foreign soil, Russell celebrated his 20th birthday in the company of his comrades with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, in the Samoan Islands.
1,876 miles away, the first wave of U.S. troops landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, to secure Allied control of the island and thwart Japanese attempts to gain access to Australia and New Zealand.
Months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and many days at sea, the men of Easy Company, had landed on Samoa, fully anticipating the mission ahead of them. As battles continued in the Solomon Islands and casualties mounted, the 7th Marine Regiment, stood ready to join the fight.
“When we were on Samoa, we would get all the stories from the ships stopping there of what was happening on Guadalcanal. So we were fully prepared for what faced us,” said Russell. “When we got aboard ship, we knew where we were going, and we were prepared for it.”
By September 1st, 1942, Russell and the rest of the 7th Marine Regiment were in route to Guadalcanal. In mid-September, Russell stepped onto the beaches of Guadalcanal and became a part of one of the most significant battles in the 1st Marine Division’s history. He can still recall the sights and sounds of war.
“The sounds – just horrible. The sounds of machine guns and rifle fire and mortars. Just a horrible experience,” said Russell. “When you’re in a battle like that, you’re really there just thinking of survival. Eliminating the Japanese. That’s all we had in mind.”
A few weeks prior to Russell’s unit arriving on Guadalcanal, there had been a big battle to secure a ridge surrounding the airfield. It had been fought for and secured by Edson’s Raiders. The 7th Marine Regiment became responsible for holding the ridge, known as Bloody Ridge or Edson’s Ridge.
“We were on Bloody Ridge with 1st Battalion, and we learned there were a bunch of [Japanese] coming from the other direction. We were asked to go man this other ridge and left 1st Battalion to man Bloody Ridge by themselves. It was difficult. But we did man the ridge,” said Russell. “After a day or two on there, the Japanese hit F Company and broke through their lines. Our commanding officer gathered a bunch of cooks and whatever he could get and they went back onto the ridge and eliminated the Japanese. They restored the position.”
For relentlessly manning the ridge, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines received a Presidential Unit Citation, an award given to units who display extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.
After that battle, Russell remembers the gruesome aftermath.
“I had the opportunity to go back behind the lines. I grabbed three or four canteens from the other guys and was filling them with water and bringing them back,” explained Russell. “When I was down there, I saw a lot of Japanese all deceased. I had to walk right by them coming back.”
The Division was on Guadalcanal until January of 1943, when they turned over control of the island to the Army. They then boarded ships and made their way to Melbourne, Australia. Although leaving the island was a relief, said Russell, it was hard. They visited the cemetery at Guadalcanal and paid their respects to their fallen comrades.
Russell remembers arriving to a heroes welcome and the people of Australia regarding them as “saviors.” All that, though, came at a cost.
“I learned a lot about life on Guadalcanal,” Russell said. “When you see a bunch of dead bodies, and you see them deteriorating in the hot sun, it just makes you appreciate life.”
Although it was bittersweet, Russell explained that they enjoyed their time in Australia. After all, there was still more fighting that awaited them. After rest and refit in Melbourne, they moved on to Cape Gloucester.
“We landed on Cape Gloucester on December 26. Our battalion was charged with establishing the beach head and protecting it,” explained Russell.
Nine days into the battle, Russell was wounded when a mortar landed near him and severely injured his knee. He was evacuated and subsequently hospitalized for approximately 5 months. He was awarded the Purple Heart. He later returned to Guadalcanal where the Division had now established a camp. He was examined by a doctor and deemed unfit to stay in the fight, therefore he would return stateside. Despite all he had witnessed and endured he could only think of his fellow Marines.
“I had mixed feelings. I hated to leave all those guys because I knew where they were going; they were headed to Peleliu. That’s where I lost two of my very good friends.”
Russell was ultimately discharged from the Marine Corps due to his injuries.
80 years later Russell’s contributions, along with the thousands of other Marines who fought alongside him, remain a steadfast part of the Division’s history and identity. Today, “GUADALCANAL” remains inscribed on the 1st Marine Division logo, along with the Southern Cross, which is the constellation under which Marines fought on Guadalcanal.
As he prepares to celebrate his 100th birthday and simultaneously commemorate the 80th anniversary of the battle that shaped his young life, he expresses gratitude for what the Corps has given him.
“I was part of a very important part of the Marine Corps. It makes me very proud,” expressed Russell. “The Marine Corps taught me everything I know; respect for my superiors…just taught me to be a good man. I have had a good life.”
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Destiny Dempsey)